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Earthquake: Army flies in after Christchurch hit by powerful shock

A state of emergency was declared in the southern New Zealand city of Christchurch yesterday, after a powerful earthquake struck early on Saturday morning.

The earthquake, which had a magnitude of 7.1 and hit at 4.35am, devastated the city. Walls crumbled, roads cracked and power failed, leaving many people trapped. Remarkably, there have been no reports of any deaths. The Prime Minister, John Key, who flew to Christchurch to inspect the damage, declared it "an absolute miracle".

Christchurch is New Zealand's second-largest city, with a population of around 400,000. The mayor, Bob Parker, was shocked at the extent of the damage, saying: "We're grateful we haven't lost a life."

The army has been flown in, along with extra police officers, and rescue workers have set up accommodation centres at schools in suburban areas to house hundreds of people forced to flee their homes.

Residents in the city's low-lying eastern suburbs were being prepared to evacuate after power, gas, sewage and water systems were cut by the earthquake. A curfew is in place and residents have been asked to stay indoors until at least this morning. Christchurch International Airport has also been closed as a precautionary measure.

John Carter, the Civil Defence Minister, said there is "a lot of damage to key infrastructure". Indications are that the damage could cost the country NZ$2bn (£930m).

New Zealand's last major earthquake, also in the South Island, registered a magnitude of 7.8 in July 2009, and moved its southern tip 12 inches closer to Australia.